Saudi Arabia: Difficult Choices

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khalid Alnowaiser

We must keep our country safe and united at a time of regional upheaval

I realize that Saudi Arabia has many challenges and issues of concern in light of recent political upheavals in the region. Yemen is next door and remains a troublesome neighbor; Bahrain has significant domestic challenges which cannot be ignored, given its strategic importance to the Kingdom; and Syria and Lebanon have always been a source of worry. The events in Egypt erupted like a volcano that no one was expecting and it needs more time to recover after the fall of Mubarak. Tunisia is another unexpected development and Libya seems to be on the verge of a difficult political transition. Iran poses a threat not only for Saudi Arabia and the region but for the entire world.

As the undisputed leader of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia has a great responsibility, especially with its strategic location, oil and other natural resources. Saudi Arabia is not a Zaire or Myanmar, but a country of immense size and importance. Yet, the Kingdom’s internal situation is very complicated and demands that we examine the choices facing the country. The religious establishment still lives in the past, but its powerful role cannot be disregarded or underestimated. Further, our young people have numerous concerns including jobs and more personal freedom. The issues of terrorism and the need to maintain safety and security in such a huge and important country require serious attention.

Now, I am fully aware that theory is one thing, but reality is quite different.

As we consider these challenges, we must always put ourselves in the shoes of the political decision-makers and the pressures they face daily. So, what can be done to maintain and advance Saudi Arabia’s unity and stability while it exists in such an explosive region that is experiencing extraordinary and unprecedented turmoil? It seems that there are only three possible options.

First Option: Count fully on the United States to support Saudi Arabia in the event of any crisis that may erupt in the country regardless of its cause or nature. This option may have merit if the danger were external, but let’s be clear: America will not intervene to protect our country or any other nation if the threat is internal. The proof of this is how quickly America abandoned its closest allies such as Iran under the Shah, the Philippines during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and now Mubarak in Egypt. This should not come as any surprise since all nations focus solely on their own interests and strategic goals. Therefore, it is not realistic for Saudi Arabia to rely on the United States, in spite of the special relationship that currently exists between our two countries.

Second Option: Try to enhance the power of the religious establishment and depend upon its support and influence on all aspects of the life of the Saudi people to protect the country from all challenges. Certainly, this option has legitimacy for two reasons: First, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the nation was born out of the Muslim religion. Secondly, there are political, legal and ethical commitments toward the religious establishment that can never be disregarded or ignored which exist since the first day of the country’s foundation. However, although this option may be appropriate in the near future, it will pose a major danger to Saudi Arabia in the long run because of the following:

1. The religious establishment is outmoded and soon is expected to lose its control and domination over the lives of Saudi citizens, especially in light of modern technology and unprecedented international media openness. It is obvious that its approach is based on custodianship, creatorship, suppression of personal and social freedom, and infringement of the rights of women and young. The young will likely explode one day and reject the pressure on them. With time, such an attitude will engender more resentment toward religious authorities, especially among young people. Given the rapid pace of modern life, this failure to change and be flexible will harm rather than help our country.

2. The religious establishment also is likely to become too powerful, and the only goal for it is to seek more political power. Islamic history is full of evidence where power corrupts absolutely. Osama Bin Laden, for example, started as an individual who had a noble religious message but as time passed on, his political ambition was so obvious and he used (and indeed abused) Islam to try and further his political objectives.

3. If the level of religious doctrines and dosages imposed for certain purposes in everyday life increases in any society beyond the normal mental and spiritual capacity of human beings in modern life, which seems to be the case in the Kingdom, it will certainly backfire such as what happened in the 1980s during the call for jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Third Option: Rely on openness, transparency, democracy, human rights, and personal freedom in building the civil and political institutions for Saudi Arabia and speak to the new generation in truth about what is facing them today and not sometime in the past. We must also continue to maintain positive international relations with all nations, including the United States and developed nations, and de-emphasize the influence of the religious establishment over the lives of Saudi citizens so they can breathe normally and live a healthy and productive life. This can happen only if religious authorities are challenged by the Saudi government to moderate their role in society and not simply control the people. Of course, the religious establishment should be treated with respect, but it has to realize this is the 21st century, not the Dark Ages.

There is no question that the Saudi people fully support and are loyal to the royal family from the great founder, King Abdulaziz, to the age of King Abdullah. However, our country must search for alternative ways of planning to implement this third and final strategic option in order to keep the country safe, secure, stable and united while the region is going through such drastic political changes.

I sincerely hope that Saudi Arabia is ready to embrace this choice even if it takes many years.

— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a columnist and a Saudi attorney with offices in Riyadh and Jeddah. He can be reached at: Khalid@lfkan.com and/or Twitter (kalnowaiser)

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Silencing Bahrain’s Journalists

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Lamees Dhaif tells Al Jazeera: “They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t stop us forever.”

By Matthew Cassel

2011-05-17T104537Z_133607826_GM1E75H1FX801_RTRMADP_3_IRAN

An Iranian waves Iran and Bahrain flags as a ship filled with aid for the people of Bahrain departs from Bushehr, some 746 miles south of Tehran May 16, 2011. Picture taken May 16, 2011.

REUTERS/Mohsen Norouzifard/Mehr News/Handout

Women and local journalists have long been at the forefront of the movement for change in the Arab world. Bahrain’s Lamees Dhaif is both, and for nearly a decade she has been an outspoken proponent of social justice in the small island nation.

Thirty-four-year-old Dhaif spoke to Al Jazeera in Doha this past weekend about her career as a journalist and the recent government crackdown that has silenced her and many others in the Gulf kingdom.

Dhaif described herself as a “golden child” when she entered journalism in 2002, saying she had “everything it takes” to be a great journalist. Since then, Dhaif has become one of the most recognised and controversial personalities in Bahrain’s media.

“I came with an aggressive approach to journalism,” she said. “In Bahrain, they try to avoid conflict in journalism; they don’t want to upset anyone. It’s a small society, so if you write about someone you’re going to upset his relatives.”

Dhaif, a Shia Muslim who comes from a “conservative” background, said: “I criticised the [Shia religious establishment] and I’ve been the target of my own people.”

“And then I started to target the powerful and the elite, someone had to say something.”

“For example, we have 21 sports unions in Bahrain, and the heads of 17 of them are members of the royal family,” Dhaif explained. “I asked, ‘why is the chairman of the swimming union so fat?’ I asked the same for the minister of health, ‘shouldn’t he be a doctor?’”

“In the beginning I was smart, a little bit spoiled. I wanted to prove myself. When I put my hand deeper in my work and went for the first time to the villages and saw poverty and injustice, I started to despise myself for thinking that working in the media was something that could make me a star.”

“I started addressing issues that made the powerful want to destroy me, I made many enemies,” Dhaif said.

Dhaif described the government’s campaign to ruin her reputation. Statements were made about her physical appearance and behaviour, claims she dismisses as rumours and attempts to “shrink” her in the conservative Gulf society.

Dhaif said these attacks backfired and “only made me more determined, and spreading the rumours made me more known”.

However, lately Dhaif has been silenced since the government imposed martial law to suppress a protest movement that began in February of this year.

Bahrain, a key ally of the US and home to its Navy’s fifth fleet, is controlled by a Sunni monarchy. Shia, who make up more than two-thirds of the population, lack rights and are excluded from most high-level political positions and the security forces.

The protest movement resembled those in Tunisia and Egypt which came before and succeeded in ousting the respective heads of both states. In Bahrain, protesters demanding change started their own Tahrir Square-like sit-in at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, before they were forcibly removed. The government later destroyed the roundabout.

One month after protests began, the Bahrainmonarchy imposed martial law and invited thousands of Saudi troops to help quell the uprising.

Since that time, more than 30 protesters have been killed and hundreds of protesters, human rights advocates, medical workers, journalists and others have been rounded up and imprisoned by the authorities. Rights groups have condemned the widespread detention and subsequent torture and abuse reportedly happening inside the prisons. At least four detainees have died in custody, and two have been sentenced to death. Amnesty International has condemned military trials in Bahrain as “politically motivated and unfair”.

Dhaif described how her family had come under threat for her work, and, encouraged by her relatives, she took a break from writing since martial law began. “I stopped [practicing journalism] because I didn’t want to be arrested. If I’m arrested now, how can I document the others in jail? Everyone is arrested.”

Since the crackdown began, many activists, journalists and others have gone into hiding to avoid arrest by authorities – which posted pictures of the “wanted” on various media outlets, including Facebook.

“We reached a point where we’re scared to even write on our laptops because it’s the first thing they take when they invade our homes. So, I keep all the stories in my head,” Dhaif said.

“They can stop us from telling stories now, but they can’t do it forever. Even the dead will tell their stories.”

The government and state media in Bahrain have portrayed the protest movement as sectarian and attempted to justify the crackdown by warning against Iranian influence in the country. In April, Bahrain’s foreign minister said that foreign troops would stay in the country to remove any “external threat”, that he associated with Iran.

According to Dhaif, in Bahrain, “there are some Shia who have a lot. And there are a lot of Sunnis suffering, but they’re scared to [act] because the government makes them scared of Iran”.

“The government says that the protesters want Iran [to controlBahrain] … it’s an old song that they’ve sung for decades. What the hell do we want with Iran?

It is not a civilised government, it is a dictatorship. We wish a better life for the people in Iran.”

Dhaif asked: “Do all Sunnis want a government like Saudi Arabia? So why do they accuse any Shia of wanting a religious government like in Iran?”

Unlike protests in other Arab nations, Dhaif contends that the majority of protesters in Bahrain do not want “isqat al-nitham” (to overthrow the regime), but rather reform and equal rights.

“Bahrainis are peaceful and intelligent people, and we deserve a modern country. We deserve to be treated as citizens and partners, not followers and slaves. We don’t want to rule, we don’t want their palaces, their thrones, their Rolls Royces and their jets, we just want to be treated with dignity.”

“If the government said ‘let us keep our thrones, and we’ll offer you the dignity you deserve’ the people would accept,” Dhaif said.

“If the government gives them real rights there would be no need to protest. [The government] should stop being so stubborn – they can’t change the people, but the people can change them.”

Al Jazeera

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